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DALLAS-One man’s castaway is another man’s treasure, as a newly formed Dallas-based hotel management group is showing by its hot pursuit of major leaguers’ “non-strategic assets.” The portfolio’s been jumpstarted with a $46.5-million, eight-hotel transaction.

The deck on both sides was stacked with Wyndham International Inc. names. The Dallas-based hotel chain sold eight Wyndham Garden hotels with 1,376 rooms in eight cities to Aimbridge Hospitality, led by Wyndham’s former president Les Bentley and former vice president of marketing Dave Johnson, with the buyer’s equity coming from Wyndham founder and one of its largest shareholders, Crow Holdings of Dallas. The transaction immediately turned Aimbridge Hospitality into the largest Wyndham franchisee in the network.

“The plan initially is to leave all flagged Wyndham, but we continue to explore all possibilities,” Johnson, Aimbridge president and CEO, tells GlobeSt.com. He confides Aimbridge took the deal to Crow Holdings, a group of international holding companies that delivered an all-cash close. Since then, an $18-million loan has been secured with Societe General of Paris.

Johnson is quick to add that Aimbridge isn’t “married” to picking up Wyndham’s excess baggage, but rather is talking to almost every hotel chain now actively marketing assets. “We are looking at just about every large public company in our industry that’s selling,” he says, citing Irving, TX-based FelCor Lodging Trust Inc., MeriStar Hospitality Corp. in Washington, DC and Host Marriott Corp. of Bethesda, MD. He won’t say who, but is admitting that negotiations are serious for seven more properties, two of which have a high probability of closing. The next deed could come in 90 days.

The first closing scooped up Wyndham Garden deeds in Pleasanton, CA; Overland Park, KS; Wood Dale and Schaumburg, IL; Novi, MI; Charlotte, NC; Brookfield, WI; and Dallas. The portfolio’s average age is 12 to 14 years and RevPAR averages in the $45 to $50 range. Johnson says EBITDA isn’t being disclosed because the properties are being primed for a repositioning, starting with a $10-million rehab. The makeover plan, under the watch of the John Hardy Group of Atlanta, calls for a top-to-bottom, inside and out, redo at a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million per hotel. By first quarter 2004, renovations will be completed at all properties.

In addition to principals Bentley and Johnson, the Aimbridge team is endowed with executives from the competitors’ ranks. Robert Burg, senior vice president of operations, hailed from Wyndham’s Summerfield Suites brand; Vince Cuca, vice president, was pulled from Prime Hospitality Corp. in Fairfield, NJ; and Kevin Norman, vice president of development, came over from Dallas-based Remington Hotel Corp. The hotel-savvy composition of Aimbridge is, Johnson says, “attracting quite a bit of interest from equity circles. We are encouraged and flattered by it.”

Johnson says Aimbridge is buying for the long haul, estimating each asset will be held for at least five years. The chase is for upscale properties with 150 to 500 rooms that are prime candidates for repositioning with a capital infusion.

While Crow capital started the portfolio, it won’t be Aimbridge’s only equity player, Johnson explains, noting there are no constraints for room count or spending deadlines. And while the pit isn’t bottomless, he’s confident securing equity won’t be “a barrier to getting what we want” when the right deal comes along. The plan is to “grow smart,” he says. “Our No. 1 priority is to deliver the return that we’ve committed to the Crows when we bought these first eight.

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